19 September 1997

First, feed the people – then house them

AMID the noise, dirt and bustle of downtown Beijing it was the laden tricycles that fascinated us. With their overlong chains, they trundled along bearing anything from market stalls to mattresses, plants to three-piece suites.

One had grannie and grandpa sitting in state while another was on the school run. Some were so heavily laden they needed a helping push from another cyclist. Traditional cycles wove in and out, five and six abreast.

Beijing itself sometimes seemed like one big building site. The construction of roads, shops, flats and factories carried on all day, all night, even on the Mayday holiday.

The Chinese governments aim is to feed its people, then house them. Most are employed, very many in menial, low-paid jobs. Agricultural land is at a premium so existing houses and hovels are being demolished to make way for more space-effective skyscrapers.

Full use is made of any available land. We saw breeding plots near the centre of Beijing and strip culture on the lower slopes of hills and the banks of rivers.

Across central China the agriculture was magnificent. Acres of healthy, disease-free wheat sometimes grown under fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, apricots), sometimes in strips ready for interplanting with later-maturing crops, such as tobacco, cotton, soya and maize. Small areas were given over to specialised vegetable crops such as garlic.

Goats and their keepers frisked on inhospitable ledges above the fertile fields and pigs rooted in muddy yards. Cows were usually tethered and some chickens scratched freely although most are now housed in large sheds.

In the fields (often interspersed with fish ponds) were many labourers – both men and women. Crops are hand-weeded and we saw people watering using a yoke and two buckets. Come harvest much of the wheat will be cut with scythes – as was the rape during our visit. There is plentiful use of mineral fertiliser and this is also applied by hand.

In the street markets we saw some of the fruits of these labours. Strawberries were the seasonal crop in May and were piled high on all the stalls. Alongside them were mange-tout, green leaf and root vegetables plus apples and pears from store and melons and bananas from the south of the country.

Terraced dwellings

In the smaller towns, stalls were set out in front of the tiny, flat-roofed terraced dwellings and we saw a wide range of goods – pork, fish swimming in large baths, freshly-made noodles hanging like bead curtains, large slabs of torfu, live hens, freshly cooked steamed dumplings and fried pastries. And everywhere eggs – fresh, preserved and hard-boiled: We concluded that the Chinese are the biggest consumers of eggs in the world!

Here too, traders plied their crafts – shoe repairers, barbers, tailors and seamstresses, bicycle fitters, basket makers, watch repairers, and among them, billiard tables for hire. Then there were day-old chicks in large, flat basket trays, terracotta pots, songbirds in cages, rolls of matting and bales of material.

In Shaanxi Province even the dentists operated in the open street and by the canal we saw a man making popcorn over a small burner.

In Neixiang you could buy a coffin and order a paper mache effigy to burn on the departeds grave (and accompany him to heaven).

It was in Neixiang that the river was being fully used. Men were dredging sand from the river bed and taking trailer loads to the nearby road under construction. Downstream the local cafe owner was scrubbing his tables and chairs and women sat on the sandbanks enjoying a gossip as they dealt with their laundry.

The China of my imagination had willow pattern scenery peopled by Mao-suited masses endlessly exercising.

The Summer Palace lived up to the willow pattern image with its fairytale buildings, terraced gardens and tree-lined lake spanned by ornate bridges, but was not typical of everyday China.

Only the very old still wore Mao suits. Most Chinese were better dressed than their Western counterparts.

Crowds gathered

Out on the research stations exercises started at 6.15am to taped music. In Zhengzhou large crowds gathered to watch the smartly uniformed staff of the Asia Store go through their paces prior to the store opening for trading.

I thought I knew all about Chinese food but I was unprepared for rice and bean soup with steamed bread for breakfast and for the vast array of dishes at other meals. I discovered that hens feet, coxcombs and gizzards form part of the diet and that very little of any animal is inedible! I managed to eat steamed frog and fried scorpions but I baulked at goats testicles. I enjoyed apricot wine, peanut mineral water and the endless cups of green tea.

The table decorations created from vegetables were beautiful. I particularly admired some dainty birds fashioned from cucumbers.

Our Chinese hosts were eager for us to sample all the dishes on offer and it was difficult to gauge just how much one dare eat from any particular dish, not knowing how much was still to come. On one occasion I was carefully avoiding a particularly bony fish but the gentleman next to me kindly selected a large piece with his chopsticks and deposited it on my plate. The Chinese are adept at sorting bones from flesh with their chopsticks and cheerfully spit any spare bones onto the floor. I was neither as talented nor as uninhibited.

Although some dishes are served individually to each person, there are no clearly defined courses and I found it strange to mix savoury and sweet dishes – and even stranger to end meals with soup.

The people we met were as keen to hear about life in England as we were to learn their customs. With little common language (I knew just two words of Chinese) the photographs we had taken of our home were much appreciated.

Risque stories

One evening a rather exuberant gentlemen was telling risque stories (to judge by his gestures and the raucous laughter). "What is he saying?" we asked our host – who suddenly forgot all his English.

A few years ago many workers were paid partly in vouchers and there were different currencies for locals and visitors. Now all use the same money but foreigners frequently face higher charges.

Our hosts had to pay much more for our entrance to the Great Wall and other places of interest and even the peoples parks charged us extra. In all cases we were issued with different tickets from the locals.

The shops illustrated vast differences in living standards. The Asia Stores carried a huge range of sophisticated electrical equipment that would have been incomprehensible to the women sitting in the river. Many of the people who walked round the shops gazing at the goods would never do any more than wonder.

In spite of the poverty there seemed little envy or crime. And no signs of child neglect. The one child a family rule means children are precious. The children themselves seemed self-motivated to learn even though the school we saw was scruffy and poorly appointed. There were no aids to learning and no cheerful pictures. School is for serious learning and passing exams. Only the top achievers will go on to higher education.

No calculators

Schoolchildren are not allowed to use calculators and in many of the shops there was no till. Assistants used an abacus at lightning speed to tot up the bill.

As a mother I was interested to note how toddlers are toilet trained. Little girls at that difficult stage wore no knickers and little boys wore trousers with a split seam, which parted as the child squatted. This they did anywhere, anytime and the accompanying adult would either ignore, mop up with newspaper or sprinkle with sand.

At least they did not have to face the revolting public lavatories. They were one aspect of China we were not sorry to leave!

Shirley Brown

Left: In Zhengzhou Shirley Brown borrows the bird cage mans bicycle. Above: Crowds on the Great Wall. Below: The dentists chair. Like the barber, the shoe repairer and the bicycle fitter, the dentist performs in public.

Top left: River laundry in Neixiang. Top right: Loaded trailers on the main road. A seamstress at work on the street and foods such as noodles, meat and fish (in tanks) are displayed there. Above: School children on an outing. Below: Spear fishing at the Summer Palace.